The Politics of Religion and Oil

By Ismahan Levi

When Pope John Paul II announced he wished to visit the Sudan in 1993, the papal advisors counselled against it. They saw a meeting with the Sudanese military government, headed by Bashir, as a no-win encounter. They argued that the pope's presence in Khartoum would provide perceived legitimacy to one of the sponsors of international terrorism, legitimacy that was not deserved. According to Bishop Gassis of El Obeid the visit was organised by the pro-Opus Dei (“Work of God”) nuncio in Khartoum, Archbishop Erwin Josef Ender, against the advice of the Sudanese episcopate. Ender denied it, but other bishops backed Gassis. "The hands of the men you meet in Khartoum are covered in blood", they told the pope on his way through Kampala 

Opus Dei, the conservative Christian society which has a growing power base in the Vatican, regarded Africa, where overpopulation, shrinking resources, and ecological degradation were causing insecurity, conflict and migration, as the first battleground in the spiritual wars with Islam. From Ceuta to Cape Town, Islam was rapidly gaining ground. They believed, therefore, it was imperative for the most political pope of modern times, he who defeated communism and overcame an assassin’s bullet, to show the papal colours in Khartoum, from where radical Islam was being exported, not only to the rest of Africa, but to spiritual hotspots around the world. 

When he arrived in the Sudanese capital, the pope was already looking ahead to the third millennium of the church, the preparation for which was one of the central themes of his pontificate. It was, he said, an event "deeply charged with Christological significance". (Apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 31; Rome, 10 November 1994; emphasis in the original). From his writings, it is clear that John Paul II was fascinated by the millennium view contained in the Revelation to John, with its mystical symbolism: the seven bowls of wrath, the judgement of Babylon, the defeat of the beast and the false prophet, and the founding of the new Jerusalem. "The world needs purification. It needs to be converted," he said (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 18 & 32), but for him the only way to salvation is through Christ the Redeemer. "Islam is not a religion of redemption.” he wrote. (John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Cape, London 1994, page 92).  

If the intent of his millennium jubilation was to bring the mystery of Christian salvation to all mankind, he was brewing a dangerous formula. The focus of his Great Jubilee was the Israel and Jerusalem, the common heritage of the three great monotheistic religions. But it was evident that no follower of Islam could be expected to treat world purification as defined by the pope with anything but hostility. 

Indeed, none viewed the pope's formula with greater scorn than Hassan al-Turabi, the ex-speaker of Sudan’s parliament, who did not give the impression of being a radical. In fact, he appeared as a most reasonable man, holding degrees in international law from Khartoum, London and the Sorbonne. He is eloquent in Arabic, and fluent in English and French. Turabi rejected Christian salvation because he was convinced that only those who follow the prophet Muhammad can reach the Garden - the Muslim equivalent of Paradise. 

By admonishing the regime in Khartoum to stop killing Christians, the pope was edging closer to a showdown with Islam. However, the exercise almost backfired. The Sudanese leaders had been poised to show the world, through the offices of the Vatican Press Corp, that theirs was a tolerant regime after all. They cleaned up the dilapidated Khartoum cathedral and made a large square nearby available for an open-air papal mass, which was mostly attended by refugees from the South who lived precariously in shantytowns around the capital. Their children were threatened daily with forced conversion to Islam. (Sudan Forces Christian Youth to follow Islamic Indoctrination, AP, 8 January 1994). 

With a population of twenty five million and covering a huge territory, Sudan's strategic importance in the religious conquest of Africa is undeniable. By wiping out or converting the force of seven million Christians and Animists in the south, the fundamentalist Islamic front that runs the country would be able to drive a wedge into the heart of black Africa, separating the Christian communities in the east from those in the west, and leaving them more vulnerable than ever to political assault. Only three forces held the Islamic forces back: the resistance of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (the SPLA), economic chaos in the north, and the hostile natural environment in the south.  

Africa's largest country offers an interesting portrait of a radical state. Its per capita GNP is $55, the world's lowest, and inflation runs at 120% annually (The Economist, The World in Figures, London). The chronic famine in the land of the Blue and White Niles is man-made, due to repression and genocide. Foreign debt is so high that servicing it eats up all of Khartoum's foreign exchange earnings. Bashir's answer has been to repress all forms of dissent, banning trade unions and muzzling the press. In its first year in power, the military council executed five times more people than during the entire post-independence period. At Dr Turabi's insistence, Sharia - Islamic law - was re-introduced, first in the north, then extended to the whole country, and the holy war against the south was intensified with the help of Iranian military aid. 

This was the regime the pope wanted to engage in constructive dialogue. But it mattered little if he was unsuccessful. In his attempt to reason with the naked face of Islamic fanaticism, he was building his moral currency, showing the world that he had, in fact, tried; that his efforts to end the aggression against the Christians were ineffectual, one of the parameters required for a "Just War". But the pope's principal interlocutor, Dr Turabi, was, for many, the most dangerous figure in the Islamic world today. Egyptian officials described him as the "anti-Christ" of Islamic renewal. Western intelligence sources claimed that he, with his chief of staff, Osama bin Laden, financed Islamic extremists accused of fomenting anti-government unrest in Egypt. Additionally, the US State Department alleged that with Iranian support they established more than a dozen terrorist training camps in Sudan, and Iranian weapons were shipped through Khartoum to insurgent Muslim groups in Algeria, Egypt, Eritrea and Uganda. 

A member of one of Saudi Arabia's leading families, Osama bin Laden answered the call of Jihad in 1985, spending two years fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. In addition to his own presence in the front lines, he provided travel funds for volunteers from half a dozen countries who wished to join the Mujaheddin. "Not hundreds, but thousands", bin Laden said. With his Iraqi engineer, Mohammed Saad, he blasted tunnels into the Zazi Mountains of Afghanistan's Bakhtiar province for Mujaheddin hospitals and arsenals, then cut a trail across the country to within twenty-five kilometres of Kabul. (Anti Soviet Warrior puts his army on the Road to Peace, The Independent, London, 6 December 1993).  

Bin Laden moved to Khartoum in 1991 and his Bin Laden Company became Sudan's largest contractor, building roads and hospitals for the Bashir regime. He also built a guesthouse on the outskirts of Khartoum for the itinerant veterans of the Afghan conflict, and lectured there on revolutionary Islam.  

It was alleged that Turabi, with bin Laden as his banker, stood behind a group of Afghani war veterans known as the Gama'a al-Islamiya, who organised several assassination attempts against Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and his ministers, and extended their activities to Europe, with a base in Bosnia and an operations centre in London.  

When the pope visited Khartoum, the Saudi Arabian Gulf coast was awash with the result of Saddam Hussein's eco-terrorism. Damage to the Gulf's eco systems caused by 700 burning oil wells and eleven million gallons of crude floated onto the Gulf, surpassed previous expectations. In terms of man-made disasters, there was nothing like it previously experienced. But the local press made no mention of this time bomb. Instead, it concentrated on what "that man from Rome" was up to in Khartoum.  

The Saudi reaction was surprising. Saudi Arabia was, after all, supposedly the West's strongest ally in the Middle East. Even bigger than Sudan, it sits atop the world's largest known oil reserves, which earn the royal treasury in excess of $40 billion a year. The country's 17.5 million people do not know poverty. But under the surface of a brand new industrial infrastructure, with all the technology the West can provide, there is unrest, indicating a growing disenchantment with the Saudi royal family and the kingdom's dependence on its western allies.  

"The animosity between Islam and the West is a matter of fact," a Saudi engineer who worked on the oil clean up said. "Many of us feel it was wrong for the king to have asked the West to defend us. More and more we are convinced that the Gulf War was a Western plot to install a permanent military base in Saudi Arabia. Otherwise President Bush (Sr.) would never have left Saddam Hussein sitting in Baghdad. The Americans actually need Saddam. They keep him in power so that we are afraid. But then we ask ourselves, with all the money our government spends on armaments ($16 billion at the time in 1992) why do we need the Americans to protect us from Iraq? Many friends in the university feel that King Fahd has allowed Islam's holy land to be defiled by foreign troops."  

A curious kingdom, this Saudi Arabia. Its citizens appear to have everything rapid modernisation can bring, while in reality they lack basic freedom. Civil rights groups are repressed, censorship is stifling, and the Mutawah, the religious police, are everywhere, alert, hustling improperly dressed women off the streets and forcing merchants to close their shops during the five daily prayer periods. But if the Saudis themselves enjoy little freedom, the foreigners who live in the kingdom have none. And there are almost five million expatriate workers, technical advisors and scientific experts, fully three million of whom are non-Muslim. The non-Muslims are not permitted to practice their religions. In Rome, however, the Saudis financed the construction of one of the world's largest and most opulent mosques. No Bibles are permitted in the land of the prophet Mohammed either, nor Christmas cards or rosaries, and obviously priests and clergy are persona non grata. Saudi Arabia has never been visited by a pope, and it is unlikely one will ever be invited to do so. 

And yet it is known that the Vatican has a "cloak and crucifix" brigade of travelling priests who, under the guise of bankers, chemical engineers and businessmen, come to celebrate mass in secret and administer the sacraments in Catholic homes located in the compounds that in every Saudi city is set aside for foreigners. Never at the same place two Sundays in succession. Always indoors and behind drawn curtains, out of view of informers, and most of all the Mutawah. The penalty for being caught is arrest and deportation. It isn't possible to determine if the priests who enter Saudi Arabia are guided by Opus Dei. But for many expatriates in the land of Mohammed, their presence provides comfort. It is known that Opus Dei does have its "friends" who pass through the kingdom from time to time. Its Milites Christi are indeed an evangelising force that Arabs have reason to fear. In Christendom, Opus Dei has become the equivalent of Islam's Mutawah, solemn guardians of Catholic orthodoxy, the pope's secret police. 

No western government will openly criticise the House of Saud for the lack of these freedoms. After all, they are dependent upon Saudi Arabia for the bulk of their petroleum imports. 

Until recently. 

September 11, 2001 changed all that. Eleven of the nineteen Muslim fanatics who crashed the two hijacked aircraft into the twin towers were Saudi nationals. The US President made it a point to appear on national TV from a Muslim Centre in Washington DC to inform America that the West was not at war with Islam. In a further show of public solidarity the acting ruler of Saudi Arabia was invited to his ranch in Texas for talks. They issued a joint statement to the effect that the USA and Saudi Arabia remained the best of friends. But behind the scenes there was much to disagree about, with much “frank and forthright” exchanges. These exchanges included Israel’s proxy war with Arafat’s Al-Fatah and caused so much aggravation in Saudi Arabia that the USA knew it had no option but to look for other sources for its petroleum requirements, the same energy source it is so extremely reliant upon. Let us take a few minutes to examine the relationship oil plays in the USA – Saudi Arabia – Islam triangle as superbly analysed and depicted by Ed Blanche. 

In the Middle East oil producers may have rebuffed recent (2002) Iraqi and Iranian efforts to impose a new embargo in support of the intifada, but the United States and the world’s richest countries are still braced for energy problems because the mounting turmoil in the region is inexorably pushing up oil prices. According to US officials, this is sufficiently troublesome to be a critical factor in the planning by the Bush (Jr.) administration for a knockout blow against Saddam Hussein. Oil prices have risen by one-third, about $10, a barrel so far this year and with the Middle East on a knife-edge they are likely to continue climbing. A hike of $10 a barrel is, as one commentator put it, “like a $70 billion tax increase” in the US. This alone is causing concern in the industrialised world at a time when the global economy is clawing its way back to recovery from the events of Sept. 11. 

But there are wider geopolitical concerns that are increasingly influencing, if not dominating, US policymaking and which can be expected to intensify over the next few years. There seems to be a growing sentiment in the US, greatly exacerbated by the events of Sept. 11, that it must lessen its dependence on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf producers, by developing alternative sources of energy that will end, or at least significantly reduce, Riyadh’s influence on oil supply and prices. 

The political and economic consequences of such a dramatic policy shift are immense. 

According to some industry analysts, it is far from certain that Washington will continue to favour low prices at the expense of security of supply. Indeed, US business executive Stanley A. Weiss expressed what not so long ago would have been heresy in a commentary published by The Los Angeles Times last month: “Americans worried about rising oil prices need not fear a Saudi Arabia scorned. It is time for the United States to walk out on Saudi oil.” 

In the shorter term, the current strains in US-Arab relations are likely to deteriorate if the Bush administration continues the way it is going in the Middle East. In that regard, it would be imprudent, to say the least, to rule out the possibility that the Arabs and Iran, frustrated by US support for Israel, might not wield the oil weapon at some point, even though that would be immensely costly for them. If the Bush administration does unleash an attack on Iraq in 2002 to topple Saddam Hussein and dismantle his weapons of mass destruction, an Arab backlash could result in a major upheaval in the oil market. In fact, The New York Times recently quoted senior US officials as saying that any such offensive would probably be delayed until early 2003 because, among other factors, time was needed to prepare for “a global oil price shock.” 

Although industrialised states are far better able to withstand an Arab oil boycott now than they were in 1973-74, when a ban on oil supplies quadrupled oil prices and wreaked havoc with Western economies, oil prices still remain hostage to political developments in the Middle East. The Gulf nations have repeatedly declared they are committed to stable oil supplies and would not use the oil weapon. But there have been credible reports that the Saudis did consider doing just that in April 2002. Indeed, the Saudis have used their spare production capacity of some 3 million barrels per day (bpd) to control prices, a key element in Riyadh’s long-held strategy of ensuring that oil remains a central factor in the world economy for as long as possible. 

The Saudis, totally dependent on oil revenues, want to keep prices high, but not so high that demand is curbed or that other sources of supply are encouraged, not so low that the kingdom’s revenues are threatened. “It is a blunt instrument that makes policymakers elsewhere beholden to Riyadh for energy security,” energy specialists Edward L. Morse and James Richard wrote in a penetrating article, in the March-April edition of Foreign Affairs, on the emerging battle between Saudi Arabia and Russia for dominance of the energy sector. “Saudi spare capacity is the energy equivalent of nuclear weapons, a powerful deterrent against those who try to challenge Saudi leadership and Saudi goals. But unlike the nuclear deterrent, the Saudi weapon is actively used when required. The kingdom has periodically (and brutally) demonstrated that it can use its spare capacity to destroy exports from countries challenging its market share.” 

It did so in 1985, when prices were particularly low. It successfully waged a price war to force other, mainly non-OPEC, producers to curb output so that the kingdom could produce the minimum level it had targeted. Oil prices were more than halved within a month or two and Saudi Arabia regained the market share it had lost over the previous four years, mainly to non-OPEC producers. In 1997, OPEC partner Venezuela challenged Riyadh by sharply increasing production and elbowing Saudi Arabia aside as the leading supplier to the US. When diplomacy failed, Saudi Arabia boosted its production by 1 million bpd and triggered a price collapse in 1998. 

“By engineering a price drop, it had to withstand a painful drop in income but it achieved its main goals,” More and Richard wrote. “Saudi Arabia reasserted its OPEC leadership, re-established itself as the prime supplier of oil to the United States and induced non-OPEC producers Mexico and Norway to support OPEC’s revenue-maximising goals.” 

More recently, with prices spiralling following Sept. 11, the Saudis sought to blackmail Russia into cutting back on its burgeoning post-Cold War production, buoyed by growing Western investment (from which the Saudis had cut themselves off through nationalisation 25 years ago) by threatening a new price war. But that backfired because the Russians, less dependent on oil prices than the Saudis and convinced they were better placed to ride out a price collapse than OPEC members, called Riyadh’s bluff. The battle between these two energy titans is going to intensify and could bring significant changes for the world economy over the next decade or so. With the dramatic shift in the Bush administration’s policy toward Russia post-Sept. 11, and its drive to develop alternative energy sources, coupled with the strains in Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia, this could have a particular impact in the Middle East as a whole. 

The severe strains imposed on the strategic partnership between the US and Saudi Arabia by Sept. 11 cannot be stressed enough. They will simply never be the same again. This relationship has been built on a simple equation: the Americans protect Saudi Arabia in return for it guaranteeing supplies of cheap oil. But the very protection the US has provided, particularly since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis with US forces more or less permanently based on the most sacred soil in Islam, has now become a source of friction, a monumental political embarrassment to the House of Saud and the source of internal discontent with the monarchy. It is under fire from religious conservatives and liberal-leaning reformists. There are no guarantees that this dissent can be suppressed ad infinitum. 

The American military presence in the Gulf costs the US taxpayer around $50 billion a year. When offset against the supply of relatively cheap oil from Saudi Arabia, where production costs are the lowest in the world, it is questionable whether such a commitment is sustainable. It is increasingly fostering anti-US sentiment in the Gulf, and elsewhere in the Arab world, that threatens the very governments the Americans are seeking to maintain in power. 

The Bush administration appears to be determined to get rid of Saddam, believing that the long-term benefits of doing so outweigh the short-term upheaval that would cause. For one thing, removing the Iraqi threat to Saudi Arabia would allow Washington to withdraw its military forces in the Gulf, thus eliminating the cause of widening dissent in the kingdom and thereby undermining the cause of Osama bin Laden. It must be tempting for the policymakers in Washington to argue that with oil reserves expanding in other regions, such as Central Asia, Russia, and West Africa, diversification of supply and disengagement in the Gulf to less volatile climes would seem a pragmatic thing to do. 

Russia’s growing power as a major oil exporter is reshaping a market long dominated by OPEC, and Saudi Arabia in particular. The improvement in relations between the US and Russia since Sept. 11 is encouraging foreign investment in Russia’s resurgent oil industry now that it has been put on a more businesslike footing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia’s oil industry has been stagnant since nationalisation twenty-five years ago and, belatedly, Abdullah is now seeking to revive big-ticket Western investment. How successful he will be remains to be seen, but already final negotiations on major deals signed in 2001 with US and European firms are getting bogged down. Concerns about turmoil in the Middle East have also spurred interest in developing West Africa’s oil fields. 

Although the region is politically unstable, the location of new offshore fields means that oil can be shipped directly across the Atlantic without having to pass through potentially dangerous maritime chokepoints like the Straits of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the Persian Gulf, or through pipelines traversing unstable regions. High oil prices make such projects more feasible to oil companies. In March, the US announced that it was prepared to use its military to help Azerbaijan defend its maritime borders in the oil-rich Caspian Sea, the subject of a seemingly intractable dispute with neighbouring Iran. That marked the first time the US had pledged to use its military in the dispute, underlining the extent to which the Bush administration is prepared to go to secure access to the Caspian El Dorado. 

Congress had prevented the Pentagon from providing direct military assistance to Azerbaijan, a measure that stemmed from its war with Armenia over Nagorno-Kharabakh in the 1990s. But Bush suspended that in January. This shift in US policy was indicated in October 1999, during the Clinton administration, when the Defense Department switched command authority over US forces in Central Asia from the Pacific Command to the Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East and the Gulf region. This underlined Washington’s new emphasis on protecting oil supplies, even in areas that had been peripheral to global strategy during the Cold War. As Morse and Richard wrote: “The threat of a ‘northern’ oil boom, that Middle Eastern producers feared in the early 1990s, is now real.” 

So it was that in July 2002 the first direct cargo of 200,000 tonnes of oil was shipped directly from Russia to the USA, much to the chagrin and anxiety of the Saudi officials. 

But all this was in the future. 

In 1993/1994 the West did not have long to wait for radical Islam's response to the pope's nine-hour stop over in Khartoum. A fortnight later an Islamic terrorist group bombed the World Trade Centre in New York, killing six and wounding a thousand. Six of the twelve terrorists were from Sudan, and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian cleric who is their spiritual leader, obtained his visa to enter the United States in Khartoum. From his head quarters in a Jersey City mosque located above an electric appliance shop, Abdel Rahman maintained contact with Muslim activists from Brooklyn to St Louis. And, as if the twin towers of the World Trade Centre were not enough, his followers planned to blow up the United Nations building, the George Washington Bridge and two commuter tunnels.  

Nor were the Sudanese officials long in launching a new offensive in the south. It was as if the pope's visit had never occurred and the Provincial of the British Jesuits, who had undertaken a fact finding mission a year before, had been right all along. "My visit to Khartoum and Port Sudan has convinced me that dialogue with an Islamic fundamentalist regime is a lost cause", stated Rev Michael Campbell-Johnson. (Michael Campbell-Johnson, The Cross and the Crescent in Sudan, The Tablet, 1 February 1992). 

The pope again appealed to the Sudanese rulers to stop their harvest of death, but nothing changed. The pope was informed of Khartoum's response to the bishop of the southern city of Rumbek. "I have no words to describe the plight of my people other than - believe me - it is apocalyptic." (Bishop pleads for pope's help, Reuters, 24 May 1994). The Vatican's chief representative in the south, bishop Cesare Mazzolari later disclosed that four Christians in his diocese had been "crucified because they had refused to re-convert to Islam, a religion they had left twenty years before." (Four Christians crucified in Sudan, Reuters, 5 December 1994).  

Whereas most Western liberals view with suspicion anyone who speaks about god in public, the followers of Islam consider Allah's word as central to their existence. This has always been so and offers, therefore, little insight into why the approximately sixteen million Muslims in Europe and six million in North America have suddenly become more assertive. But one factor was unquestionably the Shah of Iran's demise.  

While he was in exile, Ruhollah Khomeini discovered that with the revolution in modern communications, he could fuse the temporal and spiritual worlds into an unstoppable alliance that within less than a year would bring about the shah's downfall. Audio cassettes smuggled into Iran carried the voice of Khomeini directly to the Iranian people, circumventing the shah's control of the media and undercutting the authority of the literate classes who, except for the clergy, were secular in their outlook. The audio-visual revolution in the service of religious fundamentalism paved the way for Khomeini's return. After fourteen years in exile, he was welcomed by a delirious crowd of millions who massed along the route to the Cemetery of Martyrs, where he proclaimed the foundation of an Islamic Republic. Those who opposed him were threatened with the "punishment of Allah" and in less than two weeks all resistance had ceased, enabling him to pronounce, "Shah Mat", in Persian literally "The Shah is dead", but also "Check Mate". 

Khomeini's victory over the shah, who boasted that under his rule Iran had become the world's seventh military power, changed the course of modern Islam. It provoked a spontaneous movement to re-organise society according to the customs and teachings of the Quran. The roots of Islamic revival spread among the academic and professional elite and - like their counterparts in Opus Dei - they were intent on detaching the wisdom of science from the values of a secularised society in order to promote a social system that was submissive to the "one true god".  

It could be said that since Karol Wojtyla had become pope at exactly the same minute the Catholic church also changed course. His election ended the hesitancies of the post-Vatican II period. Opus Dei supported the pope's plan for the re-evangelisation of the west, which in many ways is similar to the re-Islamisation movement. The major difference is that while Opus Dei operates its apostolate from the top down, the Islamic movement works more generally from the bottom up.  

Although their aims are quite different, radical Islamic groups bear similarities to Opus Dei and other Christian fundamentalist organisations in terms of structure and discipline. Committed members live in their own communities according to the precepts of Quranic law. Those qualified for higher employment turn over their earnings to the movement. Many are sent to work in the Persian Gulf or Europe to proselytise, recruit or establish parallel financial structures. Their aim is to destroy the jahilliya - the Arabic word for the period of "ignorance" and "barbarism" which existed before Mohammed preached in Arabia, and has been re-applied to the secular societies of the twentieth century. (Gilles Keppel, The Revenge of God, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994, page 20). 

For the radicals, the jahilliya was re-imposed on the Islamic world by the crusaders and later the Christian missionaries. They regard missionaries as twentieth century crusaders who use physical and spiritual coercion to proselytise, with results often "no less horrific" than the inquisition. "We can regretfully say 'no less horrific' since Christianity still plays a ruthless and dynamic political role, especially in Africa," claimed the Anglo-Islamic writer, Ahmad Thomson. (Ahmad Thomson, Blood on the Cross - Islam in Spain in the Light of Christian Persecution through the Ages, TaHa Publishers, London 1989, page 346). 

The point is, however, that a more tolerant Islam does exist, one that would have the world believe it is not very different from the early forms of Christianity, and that consequently on both sides of the Spiritual Curtain there is room for reconciliation and co-operation. But the cause of conciliation can hardly have been helped when the pope affirms that Islam is not a salvific religion. This is certainly not what Muslims believe. According to the Islamic Da'awa Centre in Damaan, Islam has its own formula for salvation and at first glance it would appear to be much less dogmatic: Anyone who says "There is no God but God" and dies holding that belief will enter Paradise. (Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, The True Religion, Islamic Da'awa and Guidance Centre, Damaan, Page 8). Nothing very radical about that. It did not mean, though, that Islam and early Christianity matched each other all the way down the line. But there was at least a theological base for dialogue and for understanding. Wrong, countered John Paul II. "The theology... of Islam is very distant from Christianity." (John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Cape, London, 1994, Page 93). 

All the same, the pope maintained that the church remained open to dialogue. And this in spite of Islamic countries dominated by fundamentalist regimes that seek to destroy Christianity. In these countries, he said, "human rights and the principle of religious freedom are unfortunately interpreted in a very one-sided way. Religious freedom comes to mean freedom to impose on all citizens the 'true religion'. In these countries, the situation of Christians is... terribly disturbing. Fundamentalist attitudes of this nature make reciprocal contact very difficult." (John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Cape, London, 1994, Page 94). 

One of the most troublesome aspects of fundamentalist Islam is that, in spite of the Quran's special regard for "The people of the Book", which is nevertheless tempered with the underlying suspicion that "Neither the Jews nor the Christians will ever be satisfied with you until you follow their sect" (Surah 2:120, The Cow), Imams like Sheikh Omar Rahman steadfastly maintain in their preaching that the West is Islam's enemy. According to him, "the Quran permits terrorism as among the means to perform jihad for the sake of Allah, which means to terrorise the enemies of God... We must be holy terrorists and terrorise the enemies of God." (Koran allows Terrorism, Reuters, 2 February 1995). 

The West is becoming increasingly multi-cultural. Both the United States and France have Islamic populations in excess of five millions, while Germany has 3.5 and Britain 2. The day is not far off when France will have her first Muslim dominated cities - metropolitan satellites of the great Umma, with their own police, schools, exorcist imams and Islamic institutions. Already today a visitor sees almost as many people from North Africa as French in the centre of Grasse, the perfumes centre in the Alps Maritimes, and the Gothic old town of Genoa, where Christopher Columbus' father once tended shop is now populated by Maghrebian immigrants, many of whom live in miserable conditions, many without proper papers. 

With the longest Mediterranean coastline of any NATO country, Italy is infiltrated by hundreds of illegal immigrants each year. There are 85,000 Muslims in Rome alone. After twenty years in the making, in 1995 the Islamic community in the Eternal City inaugurated their new mosque. A polemic had risen over the height of the minaret. Originally planned for forty three metres, it would have been higher than the dome of St Peters and had to be scaled down. Then finally, thirty five million pounds sterling later, (75% of which was donated by Saudi Arabia), the project that bestowed a "new legitimacy on Islam in Italy" was completed. At which Cardinal Oddi let fly a string of vicious comments which made Muslims bristle. "I consider the presence of a mosque and the attached Islamic Centre to be an offence to the sacred ground of Rome", he remarked (Gabriel Kahn, Facing East, Metropolitan, Rome, 9 April 1993), forgetting that it was Vatican II's teachings on religious liberty which had opened the way for the mosque's creation. Cardinal Oddi, among many others, pointed out that in Saudi Arabia churches were not allowed and people were imprisoned for celebrating mass. 

Among the world's approximately fifty two Islamic states, Turkey is the only one which remains fully secular and democratic. But for how much longer? In 1994 municipal elections, the militant Islamic Welfare Party took control of local government in Ankara, Istanbul and seventy other municipalities. Months later, extremists attempted to blow up the city's Orthodox Christian cathedral, seat of the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew. This was followed by the passing of a motion in the municipal council - quickly disavowed after it created a storm - to tear down the 1600 year old Theodosian Walls, which stretch for about thirty kilometres from the Golden Horn to the Marmara coast, because they symbolised the bulwark of Christendom in the region. The Welfare Party again triumphed in the 1995 legislative elections, winning a plurality that did not augur well for the future of democracy in NATO's only Islamic member state. 

Christian communities that have existed in Southeast Turkey since before the battle of Manzikert are today threatened with extinction, having been caught in the latest fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdish separatists. Increasing harassment by Islamic fundamentalists, particularly in university centres, has brought about a Christian exodus, so that in all the country only an estimated eighty thousand remain. Since the Gulf War, those Christians who have chosen to remain are no longer allowed to disseminate the Bible or learn traditional liturgical languages.  

So what may one conclude from these events? Not to put too fine a point on it, there is a coming showdown between the West and fundamentalist Islam. This may occur by proxy, as in the case of the Israel/Palestine conflict or it might be an open, full-fledged conflict triggered by what is becoming increasingly certain is a forthcoming assault by the USA on Iraq. The USA has learned one lesson from all this and that is to ensure a steady supply of petroleum for its industrial base until technology can provide a different source of energy. The government realises it cannot continue to be beholden to the Saudis, given the strength of feeling amongst its citizens. Similarly, they are not about to jump out of the Saudi frying pan and into the Russian fire. This leaves them with no option but to install a regime in Baghdad, one which will provide them with the energy they need until technology provides an alternative. When that happens oil, its producers and their agenda will no longer be of major concern to the West and Islam, by default, must change, much as the Church of Rome did after Vatican II, or lose any trace of legitimacy.



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